Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Camel's Mirage

I was listening to Sirius Radio's Deep Tracks station and I was jamming, simply because they were playing Camel's "The Sleeper." That was indeed deep. I'd never heard Camel on Sirius before. I went home and listened to the rest of the LP on Spotify (I don't have the vinyl) and then I got out Mirage. Listening to it now.

When I was in my early 20s, I dated an intern for Elektra Records. One of her projects was the Sunday house band at Doug Weston's Troubadour on Santa Monica Blvd., one of L.A.'s premier venues and the jumping-off point for James Taylor, Carol King, and even Elton John (in danger, btw, of not reopening after the pandemic). Mara's prodigy was a band called Sumner. Sumner, headed by an enigmatic 20-year-old named Sumner Mering (I could be wrong about the spelling, preoccupied with the club scene at the Troubadour, on the fringe of the Rickie Lee Jones/Chuck E. Weiss crowd; Chuck E., I recall, always borrowing change for the cigarette machine). But Mara had unadulterated faith in the band's future and Sumner indeed was a crowd-pleaser. Though greatness has its way of surfacing, once the band's self-titled LP was released, it was all over. What had worked at the Troub, particularly the band's encore, "More Beer," didn't translate to vinyl. The LP was dull and a production nightmare, though essentially recorded live at the Elektra Annex. Sometimes it happens; Sumner was talented and enigmatic, and no one cared.

From that personal experience, I'm trying to piece together why stellar British progressive band Camel goes so unnoticed today. Though my personal fave from the band is The Snow Goose, a forty minute, new age, instrumental, Camel's Mirage (1974) is considered one of the premier prog LPs, maybe even venturing into the top ten. There are those who suggest that it's the band name itself that shied away corporate support. While, as a progressive rock band, one is probably thinking the band is named after the boom boom pachyderm, it was actually based on the cigarettes that each member of the band smoked; the Mirage album cover even a take on the famous cigarette packaging of a camel in the desert standing before palm trees and a pyramid. The artwork takes the package and distorts it as if the viewer were seeing it through patterned-glass. Interestingly, there is still no denying the subliminal advertising hidden within the artwork: the naked man in the camel's front leg and the seemingly amorous lion in the rear (you can do this research on your own). From a marketing standpoint, cigarette endorsements, even in the 70s, were a disaster. With that in mind, U.S. issues of the LP scrapped the Camel image in favor of a cover so horrible I don't want to sully AM with its inclusion (you're looking things up anyway). So far that's a caustic band name, a terrible album cover – is that all failure entails? While Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Jethro Tull, even the Italian prog band PFM, surged up the charts, Camel's Mirage barely squeaked into the Billboard Top 200 (No. 188).

None of that matters though. Mirage is the champion of underrated progressive rock LPs. Side one opens with "Freefall" featuring Andy Latimer's stunning guitar and some super-swift drumming from Andy Ward. The lyrics and the vocals are a bit tame but it's backed up with an ensemble of rock/jazz guitar and organ work creating a genuinely bright and interesting start to the album. Up next is one of the highlights of prog rock, "Supertwister," which kicks off with Latimer on flute and an exciting percussion backdrop with groundbreaking use of bottles and aerosols providing the rhythm. From there the track gets even better. Next up are church bells ringing and crowds cheering leading into the Tolkien inspired "White Rider," featuring echoing guitar solos a la Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler coupled with Peter Bardens mini Moog, organ, mellotron (think "Strawberry Fields") and celeste. 

Flipping it over, the side begins with "Earthrise" and howling wind sound effects to set the scene, the mini Moog providing vocals for an instrumental that doesn't require lyrics to tell a story. "Lady Fantasy" is pure prog and at 13 minutes, nearly as epic as "Firth of Fifth." Camel's Mirage is a sadly overlooked LP from the classic era of prog. It's time you listened.

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